The tessen is an iron fan used by Japanese samurai as part of their etiquette and also to direct troops. Since in many occasions you might not have access to your swords (the daisho: a katana and a wakizashi), a tessen was frequently used as a defensive weapon. It also could be used in situations where you didn't necessarily want to kill your opponent. Some tessens didn't even fold out into the typical shape of a fan but were only used as weapons.

Short Overview:

The tessen was one of the more inconspicuous weapons of the samurai, and was mainly used for ceremony (etiquette and troop direction during times of war), and was especially popular during the Edo period of Japanese history. It was a fan worn in the belt (obi) or held in the hands, and could be used as a weapon of self-defense as instead of being a soft fan, it had strong, iron ribs. The choice of shaping was one of interest, as it appeared entirely passive, yet many recorded duels feature warriors winning a duel against a sword using only a tessen for defense. Also, a samurai avoided disgracing his sword (eg katana), by killing a "lower" person with the tessen - also, the use of a tessen was considered a sophisticated form of martial arts (especially to samurai of superior rank), so many samurai used the tessen as their defense weapon of choice. During the Tokugawa period, especially, martial arts schools (ryuha) trained warriors in the use of inconspicuous short/side arms specifically designed for defensive use, such as the tessen.



History, Legends and Development of the Tessen:

When apparently disarmed, sometimes a samurai could still strike with a weapon. The need for concealed weapons has always been a cause of concern for warriors worldwide throughout history, and one of the concealed weapons developed in feudal Japan was the tessen. Based upon the folding fan (sensu) that was a common accessory of the day, the tessen (literally "iron fan") evolved into not just a ceremonial possession, but also one of defense. Thus, a person carrying a fan was unremarkable, especially for one who needed it for etiquette purposes, such as the samurai.

One example of such etiquette was upon entering either the house or room of a higher-ranked person, in which case the person of lower rank would kneel, and place the fan on the ground before them, horizontal to the knees. The person would then place their hands flat on the tatami (with their fingertips a little before the fan, which lay a short distance before them again) and would then perform a bow to the depth required by the senior person's rank. According to one of the sources that I have used for this node, a tessen saved a man's life, as part of this custom. An official had made a fault, and was due to be reprimanded by his lord (in this case, the penalty was death). As the official made his bow in the doorway, he placed his tessen into the groove of the sliding doors, and this instinctive movement saved his life - the lord's men had planned to kill the official by slamming his neck in between a pair of sliding doors as he made his bow of greeting, but the plan was foiled by the steel ribs of the tessen, which deflected the doorway strike. After this stroke of luck, the lord had no choice but to save face by dismissing the official.

Also, the tessen was perfect for when a samurai was disarmed. This occurred much more frequently than in action movies - when performing daily chores around the house, relaxing or meeting those of higher rank, a samurai would often have no more weapons upon them than the simple tessen. It was considered polite to disarm (leaving swords with a door attendant) when visiting, or in the company of a superior, but a tessen was overlooked during this disarming. Similarly, when visiting a pleasure district of the time (such as Yoshiwara in Edo), a visitor was required to disarm, including not just swords but also any daggers or spears, yet once more the tessen was overlooked.

Tessen were sometimes also simply shaped like a folded fan, but could not actually be opened - this solid, cheaper, more durable type of fan became favoured by many of the samurai, and was made of either wood or iron. The ancestor of the tessen was a solid, vaguely round fan named a gunbei-uchiwa which was used by battlefield officers to signal their troops (a modern-day equivalent might be seen in Spirited Away, in which fans are used to coordinate a team effort). A descendent of the gunbei-uchiwa, the gunsen (a war fan which folded) was the first fan to be used for both attack and defense. Finally, the tessen-proper evolved, generally comprising eight to ten metal ribs, and given everyday use.

Again, according to my sources, there are many legends involving tessen-jitsu. Yohsitsune, a hero of Japanese sagas, suposedly learnt of the use of the tessen, and swordsmanship, from the tengu, legendary beings who were supremely talented at martial arts. Also, the Yagya ryu (kendo instructors to the Tokugawa shogun) were renowned for their skilled use of the tessen. Another famous user of the iron fan was a sixteenth century swordsman, Ganryu. Using only his tessen, Ganryu defeated several armed opponents - on a single occasion!



Styles, Decoration and Practice:

Tessen were traditionally made in three basic styles, and averaged at one shaku in length (about a centimetre more than a foot long). These three basic shapes are as follows:
  • sensu-gata - a simply styled folding fan
  • maiohgi-gata - a traditional arts version of the fan, used for kabuki plays and traditional Japanese dancing
  • gunsen-gata - the military version of the fan, used to control troops on the battlefield
Another name given to the tessen was the menhari-gata. The tessen comprised eight to ten metal ribs which were then covered with silk or washi (a very strong type of paper), and folded closed. The paper used in the fan was often lacquered, reinforced with metallic foil (such as gold or silver), or treated with oil (for water-proofing). In this way, the tessen became both an object of beauty, and was less susceptible to damage from the elements. Sometimes, only the outer ribs of the tessen were made of iron, and the inner ones instead were formed from bamboo strips, giving the fan an advantage of being both lighter (and easier to carry) and more flexible, but were only able to be utilised as a weapon when closed. On the other hand, the fully-metal tessen could jab (and to a lesser extent, slash, I believe) and also be used simply as a fan. The term tessen generally referred to the folding type of defensive fan. Other than the more expensive and difficult to maintain folding fan, the solid tessen (called most frequently the tehnarashi-gata) were heavy. Some were straight-edged, while others were detailed to seem like a fan under a quick inspecting glance. These fans were considered more effective for combat, and became popular especially for two classes of officials - samurai police officers, and their non-samurai assistants. These officials used the tessen along with a iron truncheon named a jutte to disarm and arrest trouble-makers. Incidentally, the jutte was also the badge of office for these people. Another form of the solid tessen was the motsu-shaku, which was carved from sunuke or oak wood. These had the advantage of being both easy and inexpensive to make, and were also advantageous to the user in that they were light and easy to carry or wear. These were often used for practice, and also for self-protection.

In order to seem more fan-like, and appropriate for ceremonial work, tessen were often decorated. All styles of the fan weapons could be decorated, and often were engraved with a selection of decorative features, such as poetry, rank titles, pictures of animals or symbolic kanji (characters). At times, similar to a bladed weapon, a fancy silk cord wrapping was used as a handle (which would undoubtedly have given the tessen better grip). Naturally, many of the tessen were simple and designed to be purely functional, and were thus undecorated.

Tessen-jutsu was considered a part of the classical Japanese martial arts, although it was intended first and foremost for self-defense. The techniques developed for useage of the tessen were not aggressive, but more defensive reactions to an attacker. The focus of tessen use was to restrain or incapacitate an opponent (the tessen, for obvious reasons, would be a poor choice of weapon against several opponents), and rarely was used to kill or permanently injure the other duelist.

And yes, you can buy replica tessen online, if you feel so inclined...







Sources:

http://www.indiana.edu/~ealc100/Group19/weaponry.html
http://www.e-budokai.com/articles/weapons.htm
http://www.wdob.net/mai/weapons/fan/fanshistory.php

I couldn't find much information on tessen, but if you find errors or additional information, please let me know, as I do not read/write Japanese myself. Thanks.
NB: Italicised terms are only those which I think are not commonly understood within the English language.

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